Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Dueling for Leverage

As the dispute over Iran's seizure of British sailors continues to twist and turn, what may have been an isolated incident at the outset is...

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

As the dispute over Iran’s seizure of British sailors continues to twist and turn, what may have been an isolated incident at the outset is quickly developing into yet another move in the geopolitical chess game between the West and Iran.

The incident took place on March 23 in a disputed waterway between Iraq and Iran. Fifteen British sailors were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and after a few short days of quiet diplomacy, both the British and Iranian governments resorted to fighting their case in public—a move that significantly reduces the chance of a quick and smooth resolution to the dispute.

From the outset, the British authorities have insisted in stark categorical terms that the sailors were in Iraqi and not Iranian waters. Last Wednesday, the British produced GPS coordinates to support their claim, even though the coordinates were from a helicopter that London says hovered over the Indian ship that the sailors had inspected, and not the GPS coordinates of the sailors themselves.

Iran was quick to produce its own evidence. The GPS unit of one of the British sailors, confiscated by the Iranian authorities, shows that the British were not only in Iranian waters at the time of the incident, but that they had crossed over into Iranian waters on five earlier occasions as well, according to Tehran.

Whether the British were in Iranian waters or not—and whether the Iranians believe the British were in Iranian waters or not—Tehran seems to be using the incident to regain leverage over the West in the confrontation over its nuclear program and its rising power and influence in the Middle East.

Much indicates that both Iran and the United States have come to recognize that it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid some sort of diplomatic confrontation. This is particularly problematic for the George W. Bush administration, which for several years has adamantly opposed the idea of talking to Tehran.

The sudden realization of the near-impossibility of avoiding real diplomacy caused much anxiety in the Bush administration earlier this year. Washington had no shortage of contingency war plans with Iran—but no contingency plans for diplomacy, and consequently no preparation for such negotiations.

So when the Iraq Study Group and Congress pushed the White House to recognize the need for diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, the Bush administration balked. It lacked leverage to negotiate with Iran, it said.

"Frankly, right at this moment there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us and so in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained. "The only reason to talk to us would be to extract a price, and that’s not diplomacy, that’s extortion."

If the United States lacked leverage over Iran, the answer lay in gaining that leverage. Instead of accepting the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation to open talks with Iran, the Bush White House sought to increase the pressure on Iran to gain leverage—in any way possible.

On December 24, 2006, U.S. troops in Iraq arrested several Iranian officials—of whom at least two were diplomats. A few weeks later, an office the Iranians say was a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan was raided. Another five Iranians were detained there. They are still held by the United States, and Tehran has had no access to them.

In addition, Ali Reza Asgari, a senior Iranian official who served in the cabinet of former President Mohammad Khatami, went missing in Turkey in February. His family and authorities in Tehran say he was kidnapped by the Israelis. The United States says he defected.

Whether the arrested Iranians were diplomats or not and whether Asgari defected or was kidnapped, in two short months, the detentions of the Iranians, the imposition of financial sanctions on Iran and the passing of two UN Security Council Resolutions has seemingly provided the United States with the leverage it was seeking. Washington is suddenly feeling confident and is hinting a vague willingness to talk to Tehran from its perceived position of strength.

In this context, Iran’s holding of the British sailors may serve as a signal to Washington that if seizing personnel from the other side is fair game for the sake of gaining leverage, then Iran can also play that game.

Rather than an act of desperation resulting from the onslaught of Western pressure, as some in Washington have interpreted Iran’s actions, the arrest of the British sailors may have been a calculated measure to fight fire with fire—but without targeting the United States directly, which surely would have caused things to escalate out of control.

The revelation of what Tehran says in the second letter by the sole female sailor among the Brits, Faye Turney, seems to support this interpretation. The letter concludes with a call for British troops to leave Iraq. "Isn’t it time for us to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?" it said.

The letter’s linking of the seizure of the sailors with the larger political disputes in the region lends support to the interpretation that Iran is—at least at this stage of the dispute—seeking to regain the leverage it lost when the United States began targeting Iranian officials in Iraq.

Iran may feel justified in responding to Washington’s pressure tactics by targeting British troops in the narrow waterways between Iraq and Iran. But it’s difficult to see an end to this duel for leverage. If Iran gets the upper hand, Washington may further raise the stakes and embark on a new set of provocative actions. And if Washington regains the edge over Iran, chances are that Tehran will respond in kind.

As each side increases the stakes in an effort to gain the upper hand in a potential future negotiation, tensions in the region increase, as does the risk for an uncontrollable escalation. Rather than improving their negotiation positions, both sides are closing the diplomatic window through this risky game of one-upmanship.

Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliances—The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007). He is also president of the National Iranian American Council.

Citations

Trita Parsi, "Dueling for Leverage," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, April 3, 2007).

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Rudolph Giuliani is a lawyer and Republican politician who was mayor of New York City from 1994-2001. A foreign policy hawk and vocal supporter of Donald Trump, Giuliani recently joined Trump’s legal team to add pressure on the special council to wrap up the investigation into alleged collusion with Russia in U.S. elections.


Bernard Marcus, the billionaire co-founder of The Home Depot, is a major funder of neoconservative, anti-Iran and pro-Likud causes and public figures.


David Makovsky, a fellow at the “pro-Israel” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been hawk on Iran, but largely quiet since Trump took office.


Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is an important financial backer of conservative politicians and right-wing “pro-Israel” groups. Although at one time a Donald Trump skeptic, Adelson has seen his investment in Trump pay off as the president has made highly controversial moves on two issues that are priorities for Adelson, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.


Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is an outspoken promoter of aggressive U.S. foreign policies whose comments often combine right-wing Republican populism and neoconservativism.


I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a key neoconservative figure and former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted as part of the investigation into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s and later pardoned by Donald Trump.


Since taking office Donald Trump has revealed an extremely hawkish approach to U.S. foreign affairs, which has been marked by controversial actions like dropping out of the Iran nuclear agreement that have raised tensions across much of the world and threatened relations with key allies.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The US is suffering from the delusions of a hegemonic power that can no longer impose its will on other nations yet refuses to acknowledge the new reality. It has now manufactured another unnecessary, destructive, and imprudent crisis with Iran, which is bound to bring a future clash between US and Iran to the detriment of world peace.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Significant numbers of military combat operations across the globe are being outsourced to the private sector with little accountability, including in Syria where both Russia and the United States have put contractors to war.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Among the many disturbing images from the ceremony redesignating a U.S. consulate building in Jerusalem as the new U.S. embassy was the participation of two bigoted American preachers, Robert Jeffress and John Hagee, which reveals just how far removed the issue has become from any presumed effort to provide succor or shelter to a historically persecuted religious minority. Only dogma and raw power remain.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The costs of America’s “war on terror,” still spreading in the Trump era, are incalculable. Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria, Sirte in Libya, or Marawi in the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. That number is not included in the $5.6 trillion that the “Costs of War Project” at Brown University’s Watson Institute estimates has been spent since September 12, 2001.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

President Trump is a very powerful boat with no rudder. Unfortunately, John Bolton is now his rudder. Which effectively means, when it comes to foreign policy, that it’s Bolton’s administration now.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Given the chaotic policymaking process in the White House, Iran policy will likely be implemented in an ad hoc fashion subject to the interplay between President Trump’s continued incoherence and a drive toward confrontation pushed primarily by John Bolton.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Donald Trump and the GOP are deeply indebted to anti-Iran deal billionaires who aren’t afraid to advocate for policies that push the country closer to another war in the Middle East.


RightWeb
share